In 1975 Sánchez-Parodi represented the Cuban government in negotiations with the Republican administration of President Gerald Ford that had been proposed by the White House in June 1974, shortly before the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The 1975 talks led to the reciprocal establishment of Interests Sections in Havana and Washington, D.C. Sánchez-Parodi then headed the Cuban Interests Section in Washington from its opening in 1977 until 1989.
The U.S. administration of Dwight Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, two years after the Rebel Army and July 26 Revolutionary Movement, under Fidel Castro’s leadership, led a massive popular insurrection that overturned the U.S.-backed tyranny of Fulgencio Batista and brought workers and farmers to power.
In October 1960 the Eisenhower administration had imposed a partial trade embargo against Cuba. In February 1962 Democratic Party President John Kennedy issued an executive order imposing a near-total embargo, which remains in place to this day. Since then the U.S. rulers have rejected repeated proposals by Cuba’s revolutionary government to end the embargo and normalize relations.
The interview was conducted by Granma journalist Dalia González Delgado. The Militant has translated it into English and provided footnotes on facts many readers in the U.S. and elsewhere may not be familiar with.
Born in 1938, Sánchez-Parodi was active in the urban underground during the revolutionary struggle. In 1957 he and others were arrested at a residence in Havana where they had planned to meet with Faustino Pérez, head of the July 26 Revolutionary Movement in the capital. They escaped from prison a few weeks later.
Since the revolution’s triumph in January 1959, Sánchez-Parodi has shouldered leadership responsibilities in the Communist Party of Cuba, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior before taking diplomatic assignments in the United States. He is currently an aide to Ramiro Valdés, vice president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, as well as a writer and journalist.
Although he is reluctant to talk about himself, he has been a participant in historic events. Author of the book Cuba-USA: Diez tiempos de una relación [Cuba-USA: Ten Moments in a Relationship],1 he has studied the relations between the two countries not only from theoretical work but from real-life experience.
Ramón Sánchez-Parodi Montoto took part in the 1975 secret talks between the two governments aimed at a possible normalization of relations, and then in the negotiations that led to the opening of the Interests Sections in each country. He headed our Interests Section in Washington from 1977 to 1989. He also served as deputy foreign minister until 1994, and then as ambassador to Brazil until 2000.
U.S. relations with Cuba, whether through domination or hostility, have helped shape the country we are today. As we now dream of an even better country, the Cuban government has reiterated its willingness to move toward the normalization of bilateral relations and the establishment of a constructive, serious dialogue, on an equal footing and based on respect for our sovereignty.
Granma spoke with Sánchez-Parodi so he could tell us, from his vantage point, what a possible normalization of relations would mean, and when we’ve been closest to achieving this in the past.
When the Interests Sections were opened, what was the state of relations between Cuba and the U.S.?
After the break in diplomatic ties in January 1961, there was always some kind of communication — first informally and then formally — between both governments concerning our relations.
In 1974 Henry Kissinger, secretary of state and national security advisor, taking advantage of a visit by a group of Americans who came to interview Fidel, sent a message to him. The essence of the letter was the following: Cuba and the United States are countries with different political, economic and social systems; they disagree on the majority of fundamental international issues, but that is not a reason to maintain perpetual hostility.
A recognition that there are differences and that this does not mean there cannot be a relationship is, as the Godfather would say, an offer you can’t refuse. The Cuban government responded positively to the possibility of starting direct contacts, which had not existed until then.
The first meeting lasted half an hour or 40 minutes, in a cafeteria at LaGuardia Airport in New York City in January 1975.
What topics were discussed at that first meeting?
I was appointed to represent Cuba, and Lawrence Eagleburger, Kissinger’s personal assistant secretary, represented the United States. We discussed general issues related to the interest in normalizing relations. The most concrete thing on the part of the U.S. was the announcement of some measures including authorization for U.S. subsidiaries in third countries, such as Argentina and Canada, to sell goods to Cuba.2
And did that happen?
Yes. From Argentina we began to import cars such as Fords. In the case of Canada, a number of companies had contracts to sell us office supplies. Another measure was the removal of restrictions on the movements of Cuban personnel at the U.N., who had been limited to a 25-mile radius.3
In those talks what did the U.S. ask of Cuba?
Just to talk. The measures were done as a symbolic gesture, and also to resolve problems with the governments of Argentina and Canada.
A subsequent exchange took place in July 1975 at a hotel in New York. Present were Eagleburger and William Rogers, undersecretary of state for inter-American affairs; on the Cuban side, Néstor García Iturbe, counselor at Cuba’s U.N. mission, and I.
At that meeting we continued to make progress. The main topic was that the United States would favor adoption by the OAS of a resolution eliminating the multilateral nature of sanctions against Cuba. OAS sanctions against Cuba were multilateral, meaning that all member countries had to comply. Apparently the United States did not want to violate the agreement by having bilateral talks with Cuba, so it was also a way to avoid a problem. From that moment on, every country had the right to carry out its own bilateral relations with Cuba.4 We talked about other issues, but that was the most important one.
We agreed to have a new round of talks in August. But later the U.S. government said it was not possible to continue the negotiations because of Cuba’s support for the independence of Puerto Rico. They used that argument.
Was it an excuse?
I believe so, because then they began to link that issue with the presence of Cuban troops in Africa. And things then came to a stop.
In my opinion, the real reason was the electoral campaign (the general elections would be in 1976). There was a confrontation within the Republican Party between Ronald Reagan and Ford, and Ford didn’t want to give Reagan ammunition to attack him. So the decision was to stop talking to Cuba.
But later, near the end of the campaign the following year, both presidential candidates, Ford and James Carter,5 sent us messages indicating that if they won the elections, they would resume talks. Carter said he didn’t want the talks to be secret but rather public. After his victory came his executive order on the process of normalizing relations with Cuba, including the opening of the Interests Sections.
At the time the Interests Sections were opened, was it expected that the dialogue would progress further and the Interests Sections would become embassies?
Yes, by both the U.S. and us. But the circumstances were always very complex, and there were many opposing interests.
Reagan himself was active in promoting agreements with Cuba, such as the migration accords in 1984, which had been previously suspended.6 He not only promoted these agreements, but when we signed a memorandum of understanding, the announcement was made by the White House, not the State Department, which gave the accord an authority it had not had before.
This shows there has always been an interest on their part. Even Carter’s presidential statement of March 1977 said clearly: “to normalize relations with Cuba.”7
Why wasn’t normalization achieved?
Among other things, there were differences within the Carter administration over foreign policy. These involved not only Cuba but Iran and the Soviet Union. At the same time, there was the issue of Africa, where we had conflicting interests, and also the processes of armed insurrection in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua.8
Were we closest to normalizing relations under Carter?
Of course, because he was the one who made the decision to normalize relations.
There has never been a similar moment after that?
I don’t think so. We thought maybe with Barack Obama, but once his nomination as the Democratic candidate in 2008 was assured, he began to move to the center and adopt more conservative positions.
Obama has never, in any way, been on a course of seeking to normalize relations. His is a version of George W. Bush’s policy “light.” It has not changed. This is also tied to other complications that affect U.S. policy toward Latin America in particular. At this point the foundations, the instruments of U.S. policy in the region, reflected in the idea of the Inter-American system, have been blown to pieces.9 They need to rethink what their policy toward Latin America will be.
During the years you headed the Cuban Interests Section in the U.S. [1977-89], what were the tensest moments in the relation between the two countries?
In terms of hostility, certainly the tensest moments occurred at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Among other things, because rolling back the process of normalization was part of his foreign policy blueprint, and everything that followed from the ideas expressed by the New Right.
In particular, a very clear position by Alexander Haig (secretary of state), who even advocated a military strike against Cuba. He made this proposal to Reagan.
Has a military attack always remained an option?
Yes. U.S. policy toward Cuba is state policy.
Reagan acted more sensibly and rejected Haig’s proposal. I would say that was the tensest moment. Fidel has told me that perhaps one of the things that saved us from a military confrontation then was the attempt that was made on Reagan’s life.10
There were also moments of tension during the Mariel events, but that was mostly political tension, and we had a capacity for action.11
You have insisted on more than one occasion that U.S. policy toward Cuba is state policy. So do you disagree with those who claim the policy toward Cuba is directed by the Cuban-American lobby in Florida?
That has nothing to do with U.S. policy. We’ve given it a lot of publicity. But that goes against all logic and reality.
First of all, using the term “Cuban-American” is one of those things we do when we use U.S. terms and take them as absolute truths. It’s a term used in the census, and it refers to social groups. A Cuban-American is anyone who writes in the census form that he or she is Cuban-American. But what do Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio12 have to do with Cuba?
But even if we accept the term, what weight do they have in the elections? In counties in Florida where there are Cuban-Americans, the Democrats have always won since 1992, and almost always since 1960.
Some of them, like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,13 are powerful. …
But what did she do against Cuba during the time she headed the House Foreign Relations Committee? Zero.
When those Cubans who used to control Cuban society — politics, the economy, business, everything in Cuba — were here, all they could do was what they were told by the Yankees. And now that they have nothing in Cuba — and they know it — what do they do? We often fall into the trap of accepting arguments and explanations by the United States as true, when they are false.
This does not mean the issue of Cubans who have emigrated to the U.S. is not important to us; we have to solve it according to our interests.
When Scarabeo (an oil drilling rig) was approaching, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart14 sent an open letter to Obama, arguing that this went against the blockade and U.S. interests, and demanding that the president do something about it. Obama ignored them.
They have no power. They are used.
To maintain state policy…
And the state policy is clear. The executive order establishing the blockade, the Helms-Burton law,15 the decision to codify it as federal law, OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control), and all other actions against Cuba are state policy. Changing this would require political will by the government and other institutions, and that is lacking.
Why do they need to change it?
How can the United States resolve its policy toward Latin America without resolving its relations with Cuba? We have full relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries, and even with the United States we have diplomatic links.
This was the region where the United States advanced the most in its isolation policy against us. Those countries are not going to change their policy toward Cuba. They already said there will be no Summit of the Americas16 (to be held in Panama in 2015) if Cuba does not participate. What will the United States do?
Do you believe the moment for normalization of relations is near?
It doesn’t work like that. The lifting of the blockade does not occur by decree; it is a process that could take many years. There are things that can be done, such as the ongoing talks on the postal mail issue.
But even if they say “the blockade is lifted,” relations in the world are governed by a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements that would have to be negotiated between Cuba and the U.S. For example, air communications, the future of Radio Martí, visas, consular fees. All that has to be negotiated; and all that takes a long time, based on our interests and theirs.
Of course, the day the United States says, “The Torricelli17 and the Helms-Burton laws are eliminated, Kennedy’s executive order is revoked,” it will have a big impact, a tremendous impact.
I believe this is not going to happen under Obama; it might happen in a future presidential term, whether Republican or Democrat. In fact, another one of our mistakes is to think it will be done by the Democrats. Direct talks began with none other than Nixon and Kissinger.
I think conditions are ripe, because they can’t hold much longer.
So if it does not happen under Obama, do you think there will be progress toward an approach afterward?
In fact, some progress is being made. And the political climate favors the lifting of the blockade. The U.S. is in a crisis and, as I said, they have to redesign their policy toward Latin America. This policy cannot be based on the Inter-American system. Besides, 188 countries voting for the lifting of the blockade means total isolation.18
The goal of U.S. policy towards Cuba is to restore its domination over the island. They do not settle for less.
I do think that, if not under the next administration, perhaps under the following one,19 there will have to be a substantial decision to head toward normalization of relations with Cuba. The easiest thing — and what above all would force change — is for the United States to lift the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. That would necessarily force changes in other aspects of the blockade.
The United States and Cuba have never had an entirely normal relationship. There was a long period of dependence, then hostile relations or no relations at all. What would normal relations be like?
They are not normal relations. It would be a beneficial relationship for both countries, but it has to be free from any attempt at domination, like the kind of relations we have with lots of countries. This does not mean there won’t be any conflicts. Our political and economic system is not an obstacle to having normal relations with anyone.
And do you think that at some point they will give up their intention of domination?
If they don’t renounce that, there won’t be normal relations. We have demonstrated to them for more than half a century that every attempt to restore that domination has failed.
1. Cuba-USA: Diez tiempos de una relación by Ramón Sánchez-Parodi (Ocean Sur, 2011).
2. During the 1975 talks Washington relaxed some penalties against U.S. companies in third countries trading with Cuba, but these were later reimposed and made even harsher.
3. In 1975 Ford reduced travel limits by Cuban diplomats at the U.N. from a 25-mile to a 250-mile radius. The 25-mile limit was reinstated by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
4. In 1962 the Kennedy administration engineered Cuba’s expulsion from the Organization of American States. In 1964 the OAS voted that all member states cut diplomatic and trade ties with Cuba. By 1975, however, most OAS members had established economic and political relations with Cuba and the organization dropped its ban.
5. Carter was president from January 1977 to January 1981.
6. In June 1985 the migration accords were again suspended, this time by Havana in response to the U.S. government’s provocative broadcasting of propaganda in Cuba over Radio Martí.
7. Carter’s March 1977 executive order lifted the bans on U.S. citizens traveling and spending dollars in Cuba. The bans were reimposed in April 1982.
8. In late 1975 the apartheid regime in South Africa invaded Angola following the victory of its independence struggle. Washington backed Pretoria.
At the Angolan government’s request, Cuba sent tens of thousands of volunteer combatants to help defeat the invaders. In December 1975 Ford declared that the action “destroys any opportunity for improvement of relations.”
The triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution in July 1979 gave impetus to revolutionary struggles in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America.
9. The “Inter-American System” was the term used by Washington to describe the decades-long period during which it largely set foreign policy for Latin American and Caribbean governments, especially policy toward Cuba, through U.S. domination of the OAS.
10. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded President Reagan.
11. In 1980, in response to stepped-up U.S. military moves to crush the Nicaraguan and Grenada revolutions of 1979 and deal blows to revolutionary Cuba, Havana for several months had opened the port of Mariel for private boats from the U.S. to pick up Cubans who wanted to emigrate. As part of the propaganda rationalization for its military moves, Washington had been claiming that Havana was preventing Cubans from leaving the island.
In November 1987 when the U.S. and Cuban governments reinstated migration accords, Havana agreed to repatriate more than 2,500 of the 250,000 Cubans who had come to the U.S. in 1980.
12. Republicans Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Florida), both of Cuban descent, have been U.S. senators since 2013 and 2011, respectively.
13. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representative from Florida since 1989. She immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a child.
14. Mario Diaz-Balart has been a member of the U.S. House of Representative from Florida since 2003. His brother Lincoln was in Congress until 2011. They are of Cuban descent.
15. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 — known as the Helms-Burton Act — was signed into law by President William Clinton. Among other things, it increased the financial burdens to Cuba of foreign trade and further restricted access to medicine and medical equipment.
16. Since 1994 OAS-organized “Summit of the Americas” meetings of foreign ministers have excluded Cuba. At the most recent summit in 2012, all government representatives except those from the U.S. and Canada supported inviting Cuba to the next summit, set for 2015.
17. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Cuban Democracy Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli. It reimposed embargo provisions, lifted in 1975, barring trade by U.S. subsidiaries abroad and denied access to U.S. ports for ships engaging in commerce with Cuba.
18. For 22 years in a row, the U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly for a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. In 2013 only the U.S. and Israel voted against, with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau — effectively U.S. colonies — abstaining.
19. Following Barack Obama’s final term, the next U.S. president will take office in January 2017. The one after that will presumably assume office either in 2021 or 2025.
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